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Muddy Trail LCG 2019

Curb Trail Use
When Mud is Present

By Lora Goerlich

Mud season, Mother Nature’s torment to those who seek solace in nature. The mixing of excess water and earth can be expected periodically from late fall through late spring in many geographic areas across the globe. Extended seasons of mud can be frustrating for all trail users, especially equestrians who are chomping at the bit to get on the trail after a winter hiatus. Excess rain also creates issues for horse caretakers who might live in low areas, on property that is poorly drained property, or on land with heavy clay in the soil.

Trail enthusiasts and natural resource advocates must set ambitious standards for trail use accountability when mud is present. Why? To prevent trail widening which damages surrounding flora and fauna; creates more maintenance for park staff (and/or volunteers); to reduce the risk of injury; to prevent park agencies from creating and enforcing seasonal, blanket trail closures; and to help reshape perceptions of equestrian use on public land.


No matter how rugged, tested, or well-trained the cyclist, hiker, or horse - wheels, feet and hooves almost always find a way around mud, especially on sections where the depth of the quagmire is unknown. Debris such as roots and tree limbs concealed in dark mud can cause serious slip, trip, and fall injuries to horses that could result in soft tissue, joint and bone damage from splaying out on unstable footing. A horse who trips, slips, or falls can inadvertently cause traumatic injuries to their riders too. Most riders prefer their horse trudge through the center of a mire (it is a training thing), but a horse’s strong survival instinct plus poor depth perception drive them to avoid dark, murky areas that could be harboring predators or quicksand bogs. Horses are not normally bothered by wet or dirty hooves, many have mud in their home paddock after rain, but they know their area, they know the risks and are seasoned navigating through it. And much to their owner's chagrin, horses often enjoy a full body roll in cool mud especially after they have been groomed or bathed.  Less dangerous but still costly is the loss of horseshoes, human shoes, and hoof boots that are frequently pulled off by sucky mud. Another hazard created by hooves and wheels traveling through or around mud during winter is frozen craters. The thin edged, deep pockets are impossible to walk through or on without risking injury. I know firsthand…

Frozen Mud Crates LCG 2024.jpg

2024 and beyond - Trail users who repeatedly make poor choices will adversely impact others. A recent example of “collective consequences” from my home state - beginning in 2020 State forests in Ohio began enforcing blanket, seasonal trail closures that closed horse, bike, and ATV trails in all but one State Forest. The closures usually last from January to April. In short, even if there is no mud during those months the trails remain closed to everyone but hikers. The purpose for blanket closures is to mitigate trail/trailside damage and to help control use patterns during times when mud is most likely present. Even though this is not the best solution, it is the simplest solution. Worse yet, it sets precedent, meaning other parks might follow suit.


But… shouldn’t the park fix the issues or re-route problem areas? It's essential to recognize that these issues aren't always the result of neglect or poor maintenance by park services. More often than not, excess seasonal rain plays a significant role in the saturation of trails. While maintenance crews work hard to keep trails in good condition, nature's own processes can overwhelm their efforts. Additionally, the purpose of this article is to encourage responsible and mindful trail use. The obligation to modify routes, or not go at all when trail tread is not solid enough to support activity falls squarely on every trail user’s shoulders. This is where our responsibility as users comes into play. Being patient and allowing trails to dry before embarking on our adventures is a simple yet effective way to contribute to the preservation of trails. By making informed choices about when and where to enjoy our outdoor activities, we can all do our part to protect and sustain the natural areas we depend on for recreation.  Everyone can make choices that promote safety, keep trails open, create less maintenance for park staff, and protect flora and fauna. Trail inclusion, no matter the type, is a privilege.

Originally published in January 2023 with American Trails

Revised edition published in March 2023 and March 2024 in "The Trail Journal." Horse Trails of America

Trail in Woods
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